EXHAUSTED parents, collapsed on sofas in college admissions offices, tell one another this urban legend while waiting for the next campus tour. It's about one family who took their teenager to visit a dozen schools in Pennsylvania in three days. They started out west in Pittsburgh and worked their way east to Philadelphia, Allegheny to Swarthmore, Pitt to Penn. By the time they were done, they were beat.
Then the kid sent out his applications, got back several fat envelopes and chose the school he wanted to attend. Come fall, they loaded up and drove back to Pennsylvania. As they pulled into the campus, the kid wailed, "No!" It wasn't the college he had wanted to attend.
This yarn haunted me last spring as I prepared to take my 17-year-old daughter to visit schools with my former college roommate and her daughter. Two moms, two teens, five schools in two days. What were we thinking?
Anyone with a high school junior or senior knows the drill. Every spring, a new crop of high school juniors checks out schools on their "reach," "good-match" and "safety" lists. The procrastinators among them will enter their senior year that fall still refining their lists and visiting campuses. In April, the imminent high school graduates, with acceptance letters in hand, will visit colleges to decide where to enroll.
During our brief swing through the Northeast, we learned a lot about visiting institutions of higher learning anywhere. Here's some practical advice.
Itineraries WE planned our route with MapQuest and maps from AAA and college websites. Experienced friends helped us estimate driving times. We left after work, driving three hours from Portland, Maine, to Providence, R.I., where we spent the night. The next day, we figured we could cover 95 miles, taking a 9 a.m. campus tour and 10 a.m. information session at Brown University in Providence before driving through Connecticut College's arboretum cum campus in New London, Conn., on our way to the 1 p.m. tour and 2 p.m. information session at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
Instead we played catch-up all day. We got lost the first morning driving through Providence to the Brown campus. As I screeched to a halt in front of the admissions office, my friend and the girls jumped out of the car. I parked three blocks away and dashed back in time to catch the tail end of the tour as the two guides led about 25 people up the street.
The tour ran late. So did the information session. We blasted out of Providence, sped down Interstate 95 and up U.S. 9 to Middletown, Conn., skipping Connecticut College. The 1 p.m. Wesleyan tour was just leaving the admissions office when we skidded into the parking lot.
Laurel Spielberg of Hanover, N.H., who was making the college rounds with her son Jeffrey says visiting more than one college a day has one benefit. "Sometimes it offers the advantage of contrasts." Though, she acknowledges, "I'm sure if you do two a day for lots of days, they probably all blend together."
Lesson learned: Don't try to visit more than two schools a day.
Accommodations I didn't call for reservations until a week before our trip and couldn't get rooms at two of my first choices. Schools are inundated with visitors in April, and again in August and early fall. Book ahead if you're going to be touring during peak season.
In order to eat breakfast, check out early and make the morning tour and information sessions, we found it best to spend the night close to campus. That meant a late-afternoon drive to ready ourselves for the next day. Some lodgings near schools may jack up prices, knowing they have a captive clientele. Still, be sure to mention the school when you're booking; it may win you a college discount.
Because we planned to arrive in Providence late at night, we chose to stay in a high-rise Holiday Inn visible from the highway. In Middletown, we settled for an inexpensive Wesley Inn & Suites motel.
The nicest place we stayed was the easiest to book and the best deal. I snagged a room at the Farnam Guest House in the tony Prospect Hill neighborhood of New Haven, Conn., for $140 after agreeing to forgo the gourmet breakfast. For the same price as the ho-hum Holiday Inn, we had a huge room with a twin, a trundle and a king-size bed piled with down pillows and comforters. The trusting owner left a key under the welcome mat. We had the run of the 1934 Georgian-style mansion and made ourselves tea as soon as we arrived. We were delighted with our stay at the B&B.
(One suggestion for hotel stays: Skip the swimsuits but pack your laptop and look for places with WiFi or wired Internet access so you can keep in touch with the office and home. We did bring our swimsuits but didn't have the time or energy to swim in the one place that had a pool.)
We so enjoyed our stay at Farnam Guest House, I wondered whether it might have colored our reaction to Yale. We found it hard to isolate the educational institution from the whole travel experience. You don't want to fall in love with a B&B and have that influence your teen's choice of a school.
Another parent we ran into at Yale, Marina McCarthy of Belmont, Mass., said she had booked bland motels as a control so her son could compare different schools fairly.
Lesson learned: Stay at similar lodgings.
Campus tours ENTHUSIASTIC students — some of them volunteers, some paid — lead the campus tours. We had a lot of sophomore guides, who were all personable and adept at walking backward while reciting library hours, pointing at dormitories and waving to their friends. Be kind and warn your guide if he or she is about to collide with a tree.
Lehigh University President Greg Farrington went through the college admissions process with his son, and he's seen thousands of prospective students troop across Lehigh from the vantage of the president's house, a Gothic Revival mansion in the middle of the mountainside campus in Bethlehem, Pa.
"Wear comfortable shoes, and let your kids ask the questions," he says.
Some tour guides are more eloquent than others. The Yale guide was especially articulate, informative and amusing. The Brown duo kept up a cheerful patter of corny tour-guide jokes. The Wesleyan guide was less polished.
Try to corner your guide for a little one-on-one. Most will cheerfully provide a card or e-mail address so you can contact him or her later.
Campus tours provide great opportunities for people-watching. Because prospective students tend to cover the same schools in a given geographic area, you may recognize families from earlier tours at other campuses.
I got a kick out of observing the strong resemblance between parents and children: the miniature brunet mom and her 4-foot-10, dark-haired daughter; the tall, skinny dad in aviator shades and his lanky son in matching sunglasses; the perfectly coiffed woman in cashmere and her preppy son sporting a blue blazer.
Students bring life to a campus. If you visit a school when classes are not in session, you can't get a good feel for the place. The lovely green lawns and stately stone buildings at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., were deserted during spring break. My friend, Peggy, a persuasive attorney, charmed a janitor into unlocking a door and letting the girls peek into an administration building, but the place was lifeless.
Eat in the cafeteria and talk to students at the tables. Visit the student center. Read fliers on lampposts and hand-painted sheet banners suspended from windowsills. Try to see a dorm room. If you have the time, sit in on a class.
Lesson learned: Visit when school is in session.
Information sessions YOU usually don't have to make reservations for a campus tour or info session. Check the school's website for schedules. Colleges generally offer hourlong tours and info sessions one after the other, mornings and afternoons, in the fall and spring. Plan enough time to check in beforehand at the admissions office so the school knows of your interest. This can weigh in an applicant's favor, many experts say.
In the same way that a sleepless night on a sagging mattress can taint your perception of a school, so can an admissions representative who is less than magnetic.
The girls didn't like the info session at Brown, where a university official lectured to nearly 200 of us sitting on hard wooden pews in a chapel. It was difficult for our daughters to divorce their reactions to this presentation from their assessments of the school.
On the flip side, they loved the personal approach of the Wesleyan seniors, who asked visiting students their names, hometowns and areas of interest at an informal session in a comfortable lounge.
Two types of people take notes during campus visits: freelance journalists on assignment and kids on a packaged tour.
Yes, you can pay other responsible adults to escort your teen on a weeklong tour of schools in whatever section of the country you choose. Your teen will make new friends and log a lot of hours on a bus.
Find escorted tours on the Web or ask other parents, college counselors and travel agents. Some private high schools offer their own trips.
The kids on the escorted tours all had binders, which they were required to fill with information on each school. After all, if Mom and Dad are paying $1,500 or more for Junior to visit colleges, they want some proof that Junior was paying attention. (Our girls jotted down their recollections at the end of the day so they could keep all of the schools straight.)
The kids on the group tours asked many questions that could have been answered by checking out college websites. You could see the presenters' eyes glaze over as they rattled off average student SAT scores and acceptance rates while the prospective applicants scribbled in their notebooks.
Lesson learned: Don't waste time asking for information you can get online.
Location, location COLLEGES don't exist in a vacuum. Some are plunked down in gritty urban areas, others are set in park-like surroundings far from big cities. Students aren't just weighing educational institutions: They are choosing a home for four years.
We made it a point to drive around the surrounding neighborhoods. We walked the streets looking for tempting restaurants, trendy clothing stores, movie theaters, jogging paths and art galleries.
More and more schools run outreach programs that encourage student involvement in local communities. You want your child to feel safe walking out of the college gates, and you want the environment they enter to be engaging.
"A great deal of the process is gut-level response on the part of the student," says New Hampshire mom Spielberg. "You either instantly like something or not, turned on or turned off. I haven't quite decided what the chemistry is."
Every student is looking for a place that clicks for them, but even a turn-off helps by narrowing the list.
Visiting colleges can be stressful for parents and students. "There'll be a point of time when you panic," says John Sakon of Avon, Conn., touring with his daughter Tracy. "This is your future, and it all comes crushing in on you. We were up at a school in Massachusetts and we saw a kid who didn't want to get out of the car. He was having a temper tantrum."
Colleges like to brag about their selectivity, leaving some teens overwhelmed by the competition. Students should take heart from the knowledge that the tables turn in the spring when the schools court seniors with multiple acceptances.
If you put in the effort, "you know that at any place you're going to get a good education," says New Hampshire high schooler Jeffrey Spielberg.
On our way home to Maine, we gorged on pizza and burgers at a highway rest stop, brainstormed projects to pump up the girls' applications and sang every musical round we knew. The girls taught us a complicated canon about treating a broken elbow with "Dr. Pilgrim's Ruh-uh-uh-uh-um, with Dr. Pilgrim's rum."
As the girls' sopranos soared over the moms' altos, I realized this college road trip was a gift, affording a precious opportunity to bond with my delightful daughter, who will be leaving home too soon.
Lesson learned: Enjoy your travel time with your teen.
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PACKAGED COLLEGE TOURS
Sending a teen on a trip may be cheaper than accompanying him or her cross-country. If you can't take your teenager to visit schools, try these companies:
College Visits Inc., 215 E. Bay St., Suite 401; Charleston, SC 29401; (800) 944-2798, http://www.college-visits.com . Each year Bob Rummerfield, a former assistant director of admissions at Johns Hopkins University, organizes 20 different trips to schools across the United States.
National Institute for Educational Planning, 2042 Business Center Drive, Suite 200, Irvine, CA 92612; (949) 833-7867, (800) 888-6437. The institute offers private college counseling as well as tours of schools in Northern and Southern California and Arizona this fall, more in the spring.
University Campus Tours Inc., 4338 Minor Road, Copley, OH 44321-2428; (216) 403-7932, http://www.universitycampustours.com/index.html . Chuck DeWitt, company founder and president, accompanies each tour. University Campus Tours specializes in Ohio tours and custom itineraries.